Eric, the most appalling part of the interview came at the end:
Q: Can I end with a question on Iran and Iraq then quickly?
THE PRESIDENT: It’s up to the team —
MR. GIBBS: You have 30 seconds. (Laughter.)
Q: Will the United States ever live with a nuclear Iran? And if not, how far are you going in the direction of preventing it?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran.
Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that’s not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past — none of these things have been helpful.
But I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.
Q: Shall we leave Iraq next interview, or just —
MR. GIBBS: Yes, let’s — we’re past, and I got to get him back to dinner with his wife.
Q: Sir, I really appreciate it.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much.
What was his answer on Iran? As best I can make it out: Maybe, or I’m not saying. Or I haven’t figured it out. What it wasn’t was a concise and definitive statement that it would be unacceptable for Iran to develop its nuclear capability. I’m sure the mullahs in Iran are delighted that they can now string along the negotiators — as they have done for years — and go merrily along their way in developing their nuclear program. The message to Israel: don’t expect much from the U.S. on this front.
And the Iraq answer was, well, the equivalent of “Let him eat his waffle.”
All of this suggests there is no one in the administration empowered to tell the President just how counterproductive this sort of meandering, touchy-feely routine is to establishing his bona fides on the world stage. After hearing this, is Iran more or less likely to be deterred from pursuing its nuclear program? Certainly he’s not suggesting there is a line in the sand — or any penalty to be paid when Iran ignores the entreaties of his envoys to halt its nuclear program. As Michael Goldfarb explains:
Wouldn’t a simple ‘no, a nuclear Iran is unacceptable to the United States and our allies’ have sufficed? Instead Obama says that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is “unhelpful,” that it’s “not conducive to peace.” When Obama was in Israel, he said that “a nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” He added that he would “take no options off the table in dealing with this potential Iranian threat.” In the first debate of the general election, Obama reiterated that the United States “cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran.” But when Obama has the chance to speak directly to the Muslim world, he can only muster retread rhetoric from his inaugural address about clenched fists and open hands.
If the President is going to be taken seriously, he’ll have to do better than this. Or at the very least, keep his encounter-group chit-chat to himself.